Are Asian workers at a big disadvantage in Australian workplaces?

asian workers
Jesse Rosenberg


written on March 8, 2017

A new study shows that 80 per cent of Asian workers in Australia are unsatisfied with their career prospects and doubt that their companies value diversity.

It’s not  a surprising statistic, considering less than five per cent of leadership positions in government, universities and top companies are held by people from non-European backgrounds.

Another Canadian study has found that people with names of Asian origin were 28% less likely to get an interview when they applied for a job.

According to Lisa Annese, the CEO of the Diversity Council of Australia, a Westernised leadership model is to blame.

The assumption is “that people from Asian backgrounds don’t value self-promotion or assertive, direct communication. Their quiet reserve is interpreted as a lack of ambition. That is just a stereotype according to Annese.

So what’s the truth about Asian workers?

Understanding the stereotypes

Betina Szkudlarek, senior lecturer in Cross-Cultural Management at the University of Sydney, says that the pace and style of Australian conversations is directly contrary to behaviour in many Asian cultures.

“East Asian employees are often accused of being reluctant to speak in group meetings,” says Szkudlarek. However, “in many East Asian cultures a person waits for someone to finish their thought, sometimes even takes a while to think it over, and only then responds.”

Likewise, a common complaint against Asian workers is that they lack initiative, a description Szkudlarek believes is hampered by Western-led cultural expectations for employees.

“In Anglo-Saxon cultures such as Australia… employees are expected to take their own initiative,” she says. However, in Asian cultures, a “lack of self-initiative is (perceived as) a sign of respect paid to the supervisor and not a sign of incompetence”.

So how can Australian companies bring out the best from their Asian employees?

A significant factor in fostering inclusion and diversity in the workplace is recognising – and valuing – different working practices and mindsets shaped by different cultures. And there’s a huge amount of potential that can be unlocked by becoming better at engaging with those workers from Asian backgrounds.

(Want to know how to unlock your Asia capability? Read our story about how the Star Casino boosted their Asian management)

“The answer is to broaden our definition of leadership so people can be who they are and it doesn’t have an impact on their capacity to progress, so that merit is the only factor,” says Lisa Annese.

“If you’re just picking the ones who fit your narrow leadership model, you’re really overlooking a significant proportion of people who could be really great leaders.”

By understanding the cultural experience of Asian employees, and broadening our expectations of good leadership, she believes, we can help more employees succeed and benefit Australian companies at the same time.

If they fail to do so, Annese believes Australian companies will miss out on promising opportunities in the future.

“This doesn’t make sense in a country like Australia, when we’re geographically located in the Asian region and many of our top corporations do business with Asia. Organisations are definitely missing out.”

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3 thoughts on “Are Asian workers at a big disadvantage in Australian workplaces?

  1. Great article. I think this also links closely to the infamous notion of introverts and extroverts. In society we try and change those considered to be introverts because of our belief that extroverts are better successors. It seems that Asian employees are seen as introverts and as the research says we need to shape our management styles to suit these behaviours rather than people. Although shaping management styles inevitably will change an individual.

  2. Here are my views on this topic, from my 20+ years consulting in corporate Australia, with executives of European and Asian background – with the acknowledgement that my comments are stereotypical and do not take into account individual behaviour. #1. Regarding senior executives in corporate Australia, the reason for their lack of promotion of Asians to the C Suite is framed by this quote: ‘In the race of life, always bet on the horse called self-interest, son …’*

    In the minds of the majority of Anglo executives, promoting Asian executives is a ‘nice to have’. They think ‘Sure it will help those people and potentially help our operation and give me/us some brownie points in the wider community, but I have several “must and should haves” that are higher priority. It’s at the edges of my/our self-interest’. In the short term, I’m not confident of these executives shifting there self-interest bias, and have no effective suggestions on how it might be shifted. #2. Regarding Asian executives, the above quote also applies. That is, it’s safer to and more comfortable for them to accept the status quo. Here is my take on their thinking. ‘Sure if I did speak out more and take the lead I could advance my career/others careers but is it worth the risk/my self-interest to do so? I’m doing ok – why rock the boat?’ Asians execs need to heed and act on the following mantra: ‘Be bold – no one honours the timid’. More Asian executives need to step up and call out bias in promotions, risking censure/career prospects from the Corporate elite.** However, in the short term their taking action has the better chance of shifting the status quo.

    Michael Kelly
    Kelly Speech Communication

    * Jack Lang, former NSW Premier

    ** As an Anglo, only ever have lived in Anglo societies ( Australia and the USA), I don’t in any way imply that I can empathise with/understand the fear and challenges Asians feel and experience with the prospect of speaking up and challenging the status quo.

  3. It is a good article.It’s good there has been research on this issue. While looking for jobs in Australia a few years back I was told by professionals that employers would look at my name and reject me as they would assume I do not speak English fluently although I have an Australian degree and they would also assume I don’t know how to dress well?Based on these narrow minded assumptions they wouldn’t call me for an interview.

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